The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tie between the Buffalo shooting and banning abortion

The two may seem unconnected, but a centuries-long history of panic about White birth rates binds them together.

Guinan Phillips, 31, attends a candlelit memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Tops supermarket in Buffalo. (Heather Ainsworth for The Washington Post) (Heather Ainsworth)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Saturday, while thousands of people gathered at rallies across the country to protest the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, a gunman entered a supermarket in Buffalo with what authorities say was the intent to kill Black people. Although it was coincidence that these two events happened on the same day, understanding them together reveals the shared roots of racist violence and antiabortion policies. Both are part of a long history of American anxiety about fertility and the reproduction of a native-born “White race.”

Authorities say the Buffalo suspect left an online screed centered on the “great replacement,” a debunked idea that claims there is a plot to replace the White population with immigrants and African Americans. Republicans have made the theory mainstream recently, but it also has a longer history connected to racist and eugenic concerns about the supposed demographic decline of the native-born White population. These same concerns helped make abortion illegal in 19th-century America, and at least some right-wing activists, like Matt Schlapp, the influential head of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), see a tie between the two issues today.

During the 18th- and early-19th centuries, stopping a pregnancy before quickening — when the pregnant woman could feel fetal movement — was not considered an “abortion” at all in our modern sense of the term. Women were aware of methods to restore menstruation before quickening and these practices were not criminalized, although there was some regulation of abortifacients if they were seen as dangerous to the pregnant woman’s life.

This began to change after 1857, when the American Medical Association (AMA), a new organization at the time, launched a campaign to make abortion illegal at every stage of pregnancy. The campaign stemmed from physicians’ desire to gain professional authority, to control and regulate the practice of medicine and to restrict their competitors, including midwives.

The AMA’s campaign against abortion gained steam from anxieties about immigrants in the late-1850s, and after the Civil War, about the free Black population. Supporters of criminalizing abortion claimed that the birthrate was declining among native-born Whites, even while immigrants, many from Southern and Eastern Europe, were having large families.

The leader of the medical campaign against abortion, the physician Horatio Storer, lamented that this pattern of fertility could portend a disaster for the spread of U.S. power across the continent. Imagining a southern and western United States populated by African Americans, alongside immigrant Mexicans, Chinese and European Catholics, he asked whether those regions would be “filled by our own children or by those of aliens?” To Storer, “the future destiny of the nation” depended upon the “loins” of White women.

These fears were compelling to state legislators, and by 1880, abortion had become illegal in every state. Of course, these new laws affected all pregnant women, and not just native-born Whites. But criminalizing abortion had a disproportionate impact on poor and marginalized women, especially women of color, who had less ability to skirt the law and access a safe abortion.

Concerns about White fertility did not end with making abortion illegal either. These anxieties emerged again in the early-20th century, when eugenics became a reigning scientific idea. Scientists identified different fertility rates among different “races,” and feared that the White “Nordic race” would either “degenerate” due to racial mixing or would face a “race war” of competition from other racial groups. In 1901, the sociologist Edward Ross coined the term “race suicide” to describe this situation, and called for White people to have more babies.

Ross’s ideas circulated widely among American politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who went so far as to claim that any native-born White person who deliberately refused to marry and reproduce was a “criminal against the race.”

These fears of “race suicide” fueled a wave of anti-immigrant legislation. This culminated in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which introduced restrictive quotas to reduce immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and effectively banned the immigration of Asians. Two Supreme Court rulings at the time also prevented Asian migrants from becoming U.S. citizens.

Even after closing the door to immigrants, eugenicists remained concerned about the effect of declining White fertility. They worried that the world’s population would soon be dominated by non-White people. In response, they urged native-born White women to have bigger families, and were suspicious of the feminist movement’s campaigns for birth control, which they saw as limiting the number of White babies.

They also sought the means to curb population growth in China, India and Japan. Even as the eugenics movement was suspicious of legal birth control in the United States, it began advocating contraception to limit the fertility of Asian populations. Eugenicists relentlessly promoted laws and a culture that encouraged native-born White women to have more children, while trying to prevent non-White populations from reproducing.

The leaked draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health ignores this history to assert that the laws criminalizing abortion before the Roe ruling were concerned exclusively with fetal life. But in fact, although racial fears were not the only motivation of the antiabortion movement in the 19th century, or the eugenic and anti-immigrant campaigns that followed, the concern about White population decline has been central to reproductive politics for well over a century.

So it should be no surprise that the proponents of the “great replacement” have again put White fertility front and center. Just a few years ago in 2017, echoing earlier antiabortion rhetoric, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” This idea that someone else’s children would soon overrun “our own” brings together antiabortion, anti-immigrant and anti-Black politics to claim, falsely, that the White population is being “replaced.”

These connections are resurfacing again, tragically, in our present moment. As it did before Roe, the criminalization of abortion would disproportionately affect the lives and health of poor women and women of color, who will be the least likely to access safe abortions — something abortion-rights advocates stressed at Saturday’s rallies. Yet even before the rally attendees returned home, Americans witnessed the deadly consequences of racist hatred, fueled by the “great replacement” theory, in Buffalo.

And some still connect these two topics in 2022. Schlapp mused on Thursday that if there was a population problem in the United States, while the country “killed millions of your own people through legalized abortion every year,” banning abortion would solve some of the problem. As he put it, “If you’re worried about this quote-unquote replacement, why don’t we start there? Start with allowing our own people to live.” Abortion only became illegal in America in the 19th century because of these same sort of racist concerns about low White fertility rates. Those fears have resurged today and are manifesting themselves in anti-Black violence and the nativism that is often promoted by the very same political forces that are pushing to make abortion illegal.

Loading...